Having worked in retail for several years I have experienced the festive season from behind a till in a high street clothing store, engulfed in the hustle and bustle of last-minute Christmas shoppers. I have experienced the best and the worst of customers, with some generously gifting staff chocolates and other treats, while others are incredibly rude, draining what little Christmas spirit staff have left at the end of a long Christmas Eve shift.
I sympathise with retail and hospitality staff and understand the feeling of dread many feel towards the Christmas season – which is certainly heightened this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As well as dealing with last-minute shoppers, panic buying Christmas gifts, and those eager to get their Boxing Day bargains, retail staff have to ensure that government guidelines – such as social distancing and regular cleaning – are followed; adding extra pressure during the already stressful festive season.
Realistically, retail and hospitality should be closed from the 23rd December to the 27th December to give staff a well-deserved break and prevent increased coronavirus transmissions. However, with the profit-orientated outlook from high street stores and supermarkets, it is unlikely that this will ever happen.
Prioritising profit over staff safety?
The festive season is usually the busiest time of year for the retail and hospitality sector. After months of preparing through advertising and other marketing, the industries generate the majority of their income through Christmas shoppers buying gifts or dinner staples. However, it seems as though they do not have the wellbeing of their staff at the forefront of their plans. There is little regard for the abuse that many staff members face with the mantra “the customer is always right” (spoiler: they are not) and many are subject to long hours with no breaks.
From my experience working in retail, it felt as though the youngest and lowest paid staff members were the ones doing the majority of work and were given the longest hours with hardly any breaks. This was denied of course, but years later I still cannot help but think I was merely cheap labour for the company, not a person whose mental health should be considered during such a stressful time.
However, many companies need the Christmas period to stay afloat or else are risking bankruptcy, especially smaller, family-owned food venues. They need the influx of customers now more than ever, or they face the same fate as the Arcadia Group, who went into administration in late November. But where can the line be drawn? While profit has to be considered, when will staff wellbeing be put into the equation?
Families separated over the holidays
It is harsh, but true, to say that the people visiting the pub for their Christmas lunch or staying in a hotel near their family have little consideration for the workers they are keeping away from their own families.
I am not a religious person, so I rather think that Christmas is about family and spending time with loved ones. However, for several years in a row, I have felt like the essence of Christmas has been non-existent with either myself or another family member working on and between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.
People getting their Christmas shopping done last minute on the 24th meant that I could not spend the day with my family completing our Christmas Eve traditions. People travelling and spending the 25th with their families, meant that my sister was not able to spend the day with us as she worked the reception desk at our local Premier Inn. And while it is definitely a first-world problem and there are many people across the world facing more hardships than myself, it is still a blow to any family.
The socioeconomic divide and Boxing Day sales
There is a socioeconomic divide between workers and customers during the Christmas period, whether that be in a high street store or in a local restaurant. Stereotypically, there is a marked difference between the server and those being served who are able to splash their cash on a three-course meal on Christmas Day.
This can also be seen in the marketing ploys of the Boxing Day sales. So many of us fall for the psychological strategies of retail companies even after receiving thoughtful gifts from our loved ones. To me, it seems to be a snub to those who have worked hard to pay for the gifts, just for them to be disregarded the next day.
I believe that especially this year after the hardships that 2020 has thrown our way, there are more important things to worry about than getting a bargain on an electrical device or dining out on a professional three-course Christmas meal rather than a homemade dish. Christmas is about spending time with family but the existence of the retail and hospitality industries make it about everything but that.
With stricter regulations put in place on the 20th December by the government, many stores and hospitality venues have been forced to close. Could this year show that they do not /should not need to rely on the influx of customers at Christmastime?